Quaker Universalist Conversations

Can we attain “absolute Truth”?

Stephen Angell, professor of religion at Earlham College, writes about the belief among early Friends that one could attain “absolute Truth” through the Inward Light of Christ, and how challenging this idea is for us today

This has been a fascinating and needed discussion. Thanks to Adria Guzman, James Riemermann, and all of the contributors to this thread.

Through this thread, we are seeing vividly how diverse universalism can be among Friends.

As a Christian Universalist, I do hearken back to Robert Barclay’s distinction between (1) the conscience, as an important, indeed indispensable, yet fallible human organ, and (2) the Light of Christ, which is divine and eternal. I want to affirm Barclay’s distinction here between apprehension of relative truths through the conscience and apprehension of absolute truth through the Light of Christ. The two may be closely related — a common formulation of 17th century Friends was “the Light in the conscience” — but they are not the same.

As a 21st century Friend, I am more cautious than Friend Barclay in asserting when the absolute truth has been attained. Some of Barclay’s own examples — for example, he implied that Muslims espoused a relative truth when they advocated abstention from alcoholic beverages, whereas the absolute truth would be that moderate consumption of alcohol is acceptable — are matters that Quakers ourselves have gone back and forth on during our more than three-and-a-half centuries of existence.

As Friends, we have to be exceedingly diligent and careful (even playful!) in our use of discernment on our “leadings”, individually and corporately, before we can have any thought of claiming any sense of absolute truth. But as wonderfully or irritatingly fractious and diverse as we are as 21st century Friends, let us not give up on the possibility of our uniting on the ground of truth. It is a core Quaker conviction.


It’s good to hear from you, Stephen, and it's a worthy challenge you raise. (Also, Anthony: I think I understand and can appreciate what you’re doing by reposting various comments as posts, highlighting individual voices, but I’m hoping this conversation stays in one place rather than being spread out beneath a growing number of separate posts, where people can have a hard time following the thread. I am posting under Stephen’s post rather than mine as the challenges he raises are somewhat new to the thread.) I have a feeling--I could be wrong about this--that by “truth” you mean something other than my fairly mundane, conventional understanding of “that which is is the case.” I think you are talking primarily about what is right, what is good, rather than what is true in a conventional sense. I know that truth, and even moreso the capitalized “Truth” so often used in religious conversations, has a very established pedigree in this sense of moral goodness rather than factual correctness, but I find it confusing. A thing can be true without being good, or good without being true. Only in a perfect world would they be one and the same, and the world we live in is far from perfect. Sorry about that rather windy beginning, but I didn’t want to proceed without clarifying what I think we’re actually talking about. I completely agree, and find it of the greatest importance, that Quakers, and for that matter all human beings, work together to discern the best and most loving way forward in our lives, in our relationships with one another, with all living beings, with the world around us. I also agree that there are times when it is exceedingly difficult to see, and even more difficult to follow, that way forward. I’m not sure I am able to distinguish between relative and absolute here--to my mind it is all about increasing joy and fullness of life, and easing suffering, for all, which is relative in the sense that it is about the moving reality of particular lives and circumstances, but absolute in the sense that all living beings want and deserve full and joyful lives. Any other sort of morality, disconnected from the quality of our lives, is a bit too abstract for me. I hope I would never claim absolute knowledge of anything, in the realm of truth or goodness. I would say that intellect and science are the best tools for discerning the former, human feeling is the best tool for discerning the latter, and our decisions, corporate and individual, call for the full powers our heads and hearts alike.
Stephen, Thanks for your wise and lovely post. I wonder if Meister Eckhart's notion that the eye with with I see Christ is the same eye with which Christ sees me isn't the root question. Fox and the early Friends were quite clear that we need to sink underneath our stories until so quiet that the still small voice is first heard and then becomes us. There's relatively little in Friend's practice as compared to Friends beliefs about how to reach absolute truth or as it is called in other traditions true nature, Buddha nature, essence, Tao, Christ consciousness, the pearl beyond price, many terms for the same experience of the absolute. As Seng-ts'an an early Zen poet said: The Mind of Absolute Trust The great way isn't difficult for those who are unattached to their preferences. Let go of longing and aversion, and everything will be perfectly clear. When you cling to a hairbreadth of distinction, heaven and earth are set apart. If you want to realize the truth, don't be for or against. The struggle between good and evil is the primal disease of the mind. Not grasping the deeper meaning, you just trouble your minds serenity. As vast as infinite space, it is perfect and lacks nothing. But because you select and reject, you can't perceive its true nature. Don't get entangled in the world; don't lose yourself in emptiness. Be at peace in the oneness of things, and all errors will disappear by themselves. If you don't live the Tao, you fall into assertion or denial. Asserting that the world is real, you are blind to its deeper reality; denying that the world is real, you are blind to the selflessness of all things. The more you think about these matters, the farther you are from the truth. Step aside from all thinking, and there is nowhere you can't go. Returning to the root, you find the meaning; chasing appearances, you lose there source. At the moment of profound insight, you transcend both appearance and emptiness. Don't keep searching for the truth; just let go of your opinions. For the mind in harmony with the Tao, all selfishness disappears. With not even a trace of self-doubt, you can trust the universe completely. All at once you are free, with nothing left to hold on to. All is empty, brilliant, perfect in its own being. In the world of things as they are, there is no self, no non self. If you want to describe its essence, the best you can say is "Not-two." In this "Not-two" nothing is separate, and nothing in the world is excluded. The enlightened of all times and places have entered into this truth. In it there is no gain or loss; one instant is ten thousand years. There is no here, no there; infinity is right before your eyes. The tiny is as large as the vast when objective boundaries have vanished; the vast is as small as the tiny when you don't have external limits. Being is an aspect of non-being; non-being is no different from being. Until you understand this truth, you won't see anything clearly. One is all; all are one. When you realize this, what reason for holiness or wisdom? The mind of absolute trust is beyond all thought, all striving, is perfectly at peace, for in it there is no yesterday, no today, no tomorrow. It isn't hard to imagine Fox pointing in this direction. In fact, I'd venture to say that Fox and some of the early Friends were startlingly awake to Christ within in just the same way (experientially) that Eckhart or anyone who has the experience of an awakened state of mind might be said to be awake. And its not just monastics, but Quakers and grandmother's, anyone whose life is empty of self to express self so that we are God's journey through the universe not on our own journey. Naomi Shihab Nye has a lovely poem that expresses this directly, one that's just wonderful to read on mother's day: The Words Under the Words for Sitti Khadra, north of Jerusalem My grandmother’s hands recognize grapes, the damp shine of a goat’s new skin. When I was sick they followed me, I woke from the long fever to find them covering my head like cool prayers. My grandmother’s days are made of bread, a round pat-pat and the slow baking. She waits by the oven watching a strange car circle the streets. Maybe it holds her son, lost to America. More often, tourists, who kneel and weep at mysterious shrines. She knows how often mail arrives, how rarely there is a letter. When one comes, she announces it, a miracle, listening to it read again and again in the dim evening light. My grandmother’s voice says nothing can surprise her. Take her the shotgun wound and the crippled baby. She knows the spaces we travel through, the messages we cannot send—our voices are short and would get lost on the journey. Farewell to the husband’s coat, the ones she has loved and nourished, who fly from her like seeds into a deep sky. They will plant themselves. We will all die. My grandmother’s eyes say Allah is everywhere, even in death. When she talks of the orchard and the new olive press, when she tells the stories of Joha and his foolish wisdoms, He is her first thought, what she really thinks of is His name. “Answer, if you hear the words under the words— otherwise it is just a world with a lot of rough edges, difficult to get through, and our pockets full of stones.” Someday I hope our paths will cross. You've had my wife and partner on the path, Margaret March, in some of your classes, which she's loved and which I've enjoyed a bit on the side. Kindly, John
Doesn't it come down to how we define "absolute"? My Webster's 7th Collegiate includes perfect, unrestricted, unquestionable, independent, fundamental, perfect embodiment, and self-sufficient without external reference as possible meanings. Accordingly, I am happy to call truth that comes directly from the Light of Christ (or however a nonChristian universalist might understand this essential experience of Friends) 'absolute,' in the sense of its being fundamental and self-sufficient. But we usually think of Absolute Truth as universal—as truth that would be true for anyone and everyone, regardless of time, place, or whatever. I think we usually consider Absolute Truth to be not just self-sufficient but also self-evident. That is how direct revelation feels, in my experience. It comes with a power to confirm its own verity. Still, even direct revelation remains essentially subjective, it remains my experience of Truth. Sometimes the group, in the gathered meeting, experiences truth as transcendent in some way, too. So Truth can also be a corporate experience. But even then, it remains subjective to the two or three who are gathered. It may not be self-evident to anyone else, or to any other meeting of worshippers. That's just an empirical observation. Some meetings have approved same sex marriage; others condemn homosexuality. I have a Friend who was disowned by her meeting for being an atheist, in a meeting that I do not doubt was truly gathered when it made that decision, as I trust the testimony of those Friends; I cannot doubt their integrity and spiritual depth. Another meeting has since taken her into membership. It's not self-evident to them that you have to believe in God to be a Friend. Early Friends seemed to believe, for a while, at least, that their Truth would naturally, virtually automatically convince those with ears to hear and eyes to see. I think this is one of the reasons they sometimes condemned their opponents so vehemently: the darkness (of John's gospel) resisted the light that was coming into the world, and this was Satan's work. Nevertheless, their Truth did not convince the world and they were forced by the reality of history to abandon the apocalyptic faith in the second coming of Christ. So I am led to pull my feet out of the mire of semantics regarding "absolute truth" and follow the path of direct experience of the Truth as far as it will take me.This is not at all the same as the "absolute perhaps", a phrase coined by Ben Pink Dandelion to describe the liberal Quaker commitment to seeking itself as the Truth and the relegation of all truth to the realm of the relative. Individual Friends and meetings DO find the Truth and it transforms them. This does not end their seeking for deeper understanding or more and new truths. But neither does the subjective nature of their Truth diminish the fundamental power and the transcending joy of what they have found. As Fox testified, nothing beats having found what your are looking for.
Jesus said "I am the way, THE TRUTH and the life. The God of the burning bush told Moses that He was "I AM". I think absolute Truth is "reality" and that God is that reality. Paul said we see through a glass darkly. I don't think we can ever see the TRUTH or reality clearly. We cloud it with our perceptions of right and wrong. We are made in God's image (at least before the fall) but we are insignificant compared to Him. Are we capable of reconciling those two statements? I don't think so. Until we know in our hearts how indebted we are to God and how naked we really are before Him we will never be capable of seeing the whole Truth clearly. That doesn't mean we don't get glimpses as we travel our path homeward.
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